Two Out of Three Falls – SummerSlam

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I have been lying to myself for over twenty-six years. When people ask me when I got into wrestling, or when I mark the occasion myself, I always say it was Wrestlemania 8. I say that because a Wrestlemania 8 was the first complete wrestling event I ever watched from start to finish, and it was the event which finally made me concede to my friend, Chris, that he was right and I was wrong about this whole wrestling thing. For the last year he had fallen in love with it and I had been skeptical, mocking him for watching grown men in neon underwear pretending to fight. But then, so the legend goes, he stayed round my house and brought with him Wrestlemania on VHS tape. He hadn’t seen it yet and begged me to let him watch it. I, being a good friend, grudgingly agreed.

Except that didn’t happen. At least, not quite.

Chris did bring Wrestlemania round on VHS and I did agree to watching it. I did fall in love with wrestling that night and when he left the video at mine by accident afterwards, I did watch it again and again and again. But my decision to let us watch it in the first place want grudging. I wanted to watch Wrestlemania. Because Wrestlemania 8 wasn’t actually the first wrestling event I had ever seen. The real first wrestling event – the one which started it all – was SummerSlam ’91.

Chris had been annoying me with all his wrestling talk for months, and I had been teasing him about it all. But I had also been intrigued by the stickers and trading cards he showed me; the plastic figures that really didn’t look all that different from the comic book heroes and villains I loved. The brightly coloured characters who – despite my attempted dismissal – seemed to linger around in my mind after Chris had gone home. Comic book characters alive in real life. So while on the outside I was completely against all things wrestling and thought it was stupid, inside I was curious. And when my family found ourselves on summer vacation in North Wales, in a holiday cottage which happened to have SKY TV, I found it hard to ignore all the adverts for SummerSlam which kept popping up in between my cartoons and reruns of Full House.

I made a mental note of the time and the channel. They showed it on SKY Movies in those days, aware it was more entertainment than sport long before WWE finally “got the F out”. I didn’t plan on watching it – obviously. Wrestling was stupid. But, you know, if we were in and it was on I might flick over and see what all the fuss was about.

As it happened, we wouldn’t be in for it. That was the day mom and dad decided we would go to Morfa Nefyn and, specifically, the little pub there on the beach that could only be reached at low tide. We had gone on holiday to Morfa six years before, my sister just recently born, and had enjoyed it. It would be nice to go back and have a leisurely afternoon and evening at the beach, walk to the pub and then walk back along the peninsular by the cliff top golf course overlooking the sea. I had loved this plan at first, but noticed, as the time came for SummerSlam to start back at the hotel, that I was no longer enjoying it so much. I was getting antsy about leaving, and couldn’t race along the cliff top fast enough to get back to the car and to that satellite television.

Back at the hotel, I casually flipped on the TV. My younger sister was being put to bed, and mom and dad were showering after a long day at the beach. I had the TV to myself and switched over to the channel I had committed to my mind.

A man called Ted Dibiase, the “Million Dollar Man”(who I’d seen before on Chris’ cards decked out in diamonds and gold and found compelling) was beating up a man who was apparently his former bodyguard,  Virgil. I knew within seconds that Dibiase was a bad guy, and could, even at the young age of nine years old, grasp the visuals of class and race that made me want to root for his former employee. Next up, a familiar looking police officer, The Big Boss Man (another face I recognised from Chris’ wrestling stickers) was fighting a dastardly man with an electronic cattle prod called The Mountie. The Mountie was apparently a Canadian policeman, and whoever lost this battle would have to spend the night in jail!

Just as I saw The Mountie lose and begin to get carried away by police, my dad appeared. He wanted the telly back and it was time for me to go to bed. Which was fine. Because I don’t like wrestling, do I? This SummerSlam thing wasn’t important to me; it was just a way of killing time before bed, right?

I said goodnight and then spent the next two hours lying awake in bed, thinking about what I’d seen. Wondering about the Mountie’s night in jail, about how evil the Million Dollar Man had to be to treat his bodyguard that way, and wishing I could have seen the main event the commentators had been talking about during the show. Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior against Sergeant Slaughter, Colonel Mustafa and General Adnan. America versus Iraq.

I remember sleeping very badly that night as I thought about SummerSlam and how much I wanted to watch more of this fake fighting I had been teasing Chris about for so long.

So although Wrestlemania marks my true “coming out” as a wrestling fan, SummerSlam was the true moment of self-discovery. And just as I made my pilgrimage to Wrestlemania in 2013 to pay my respects in person to this monolithic cultural event that changed my life for over two decades, when I realised SummerSlam was returning to Brooklyn this year for a fourth time, and at a time when my wife and I could be in America, it seemed a no-brainer that I would have to make another pilgrimage. The Summer Sizzler. Now it’s time to feel the heat. The Biggest Event of the Summer! Especially when SummerSlam weekend includes the fourth NXT Takeover Brooklyn event the night before. Having been a fan of the brand since getting the WWE Network on day one, this would be my first time ever seeing the NXT product live and in person, and what better place to do so than at what has become one of their biggest shows of the year? Throw in a taping of Monday Night Raw the night after SummerSlam, and it’s a weekend of action it’s basically impossible to refuse.

Except for the fact that the actual SummerSlam card looked both dull and long on paper. We’d booked the tickets in January, long before any matches were announced, or the show length. A few weeks before flying out here, whilst excited about NXT and the tight five-match card which promised all killer and no filler, SummerSlam was looking pretty dry. Not only that, it seemed set to last at least six hours. The millionth Roman Reigns versus Brock Lesnar match did little to inspire. The Bludgeon Brothers’ very existence on the card was enough to make anything more preferable. Ziggler and Rollins having yet another rematch barely raised an eyebrow, Shinsuke Nakamura and Jeff Hardy also having a rematch, and goddamned Constable Corbin being anywhere near a ring when Nia Jax, Bobby Roode, Undertaker, or Asuka aren’t booked was fucking criminal. We were looking forward to Takeover, Raw is always a self-contained treat, especially the night after a big pay-per-view, but SummerSlam was just sort of there. Theoretically the centrepiece of the weekend, but in reality a show simmering with the prospect of being inessential.

And then things started happening. The Roman Reigns match stopped being just another rematch and became very interesting indeed with the open speculation about Lesnar leaving for UFC and his contempt for the WWE Universe; Dean Ambrose returning to be in Seth Rollins’ corner; the inclusion of Daniel Bryan versus The Miz to the card (a match I’ve been waiting eight years for); the decision to make Samoa Joe number one contender for AJ Styles’ title; the opportunity for Becky Lynch to finally get back on top; the prospect of Kevin Owens taking Braun Strowman’s Money In The Bank briefcase and of either of them cashing in during the lousy main event. As we got on our plane to the States, I wasn’t just going to SummerSlam because we had the tickets and I needed to make pilgrimage, I was going because I generally wanted to see it! From Gulak’s cruiserweight challenge, to the B-Team’s meteoric rise, to the return of Charlotte Flair, to the first live experience I’d have of Ronda Rousey, to genuinely hoping to see the long-awaited blow off of this endless Brock Lesnar/Roman Reigns saga, I wanted to see it all.

So we got to Brooklyn on Saturday August 18th ready for NXT and eager for SummerSlam. Wearing my Moustache Mountain “away kit” t-shirt, we took the train from midtown with some random guys from Texas who spotted the t-shirt and thought we might be able to point them in the right direction of the train to the Barclays Center. With their own respective Adam Cole and Zack Sabre Jnr t-shirts and my wife’s Pete Dunne “bruiserweight” tee, we were the only wrestling fans in our carriage, but once we got to Atlantic Avenue we followed a guy with a replica Universal Championship belt over his shoulder and a guy in a Finn Balor t-shirt out of the station and to the arena. Kitted out in some new merch – a SummerSlam baseball cap and a “What Would Elias Do?” wristband – we bought insanely overpriced pizza ($16 each) and the most expensive bottled water I have ever purchased ($7 for a bottle of Dasani; the brand taken off the shelves in the UK decades ago because of claims it contained carcinogens). While you expect to be ripped off by venue prices, it is particularly galling in this age of terrorism as the Barclays Center does not allow you to bring any outside food or drink in with you. You are essentially held hostage if you want to keep hydrated, and with a start-time that clashes with dinnertime, also if you want an evening meal.  Still – that’s all part of the money machine that is contemporary live events. We knew coming in it would be a chair-shot to our wallets so sucked it up without complaint. We took our seats and, after taking a few moments to breathe in the view, got to know our neighbours for the next few days. A guy called Reggie, there with his best friend and his best friend’s family as part of a surprise his best friend’s wife had organised. The friend had only found out he was going to SummerSlam weekend the day before! It was good to know that the people we would be sitting next to across the weekend were cool – I remember the guy I sat next to at Wrestlemania being an asshole – and we chatted about wrestling, especially the UK scene, as we waited for the show to start.

Before Takeover began, we got a taping of next week’s NXT show. This included a WWE UK NXT Championship title match between Pete Dunne and “Liverpool’s Number One” Zak Gibson. Having watched both these guys tear it up at the 700 seater O2 Academy in Birmingham on numerous Progress shows over the last few years, it was amazing to see them performing on such a huge stage. When Takeover began and the show kicked off with Tyler Bate and Trent Seven taking on the Undisputed Era for the NXT tag team championships, getting “this is awesome” chants and competing evenly for the support of the crowd against one of the most popular groups in NXT, I couldn’t help but be proud of the boys from Birmingham. Being my home town, it was amazing to think that three guys from where I grew up were now performing for the biggest wrestling company in the world at one of the biggest venues in New York. When I was that nine year old kid watching SummerSlam ’91 such an idea seemed impossible. Besides The British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith, British wrestlers were a rarity, and none were from my neck of the woods. It’s cool to know that today, for kids in Birmingham who may have dreams of one day entering the squared circle, the possibility of that dream is so tangible.

I wondered how NXT would translate to the live arena though. On the WWE Network, Takeover events always seem so urgent and amazing. I wondered if the lack of commentary and close-ups would take something away from the presentation. Luckily the big screens ensured the close-ups were visible when needed, and though we didn’t have Mauro Ranallo’s trademark commentary, we had a great vantage point for seeing him yelling into his monitor the whole show. Importantly, the matches themselves were so good that it was easy to enjoy them even without the talking. Not a single match on the card disappointed and all went way above expectation. The two title changes were edge-of-the-seat thrillers, and the main event rewrote the rule book for Last Man Standing matches in a masterclass of psychology and storytelling. I loved every minute of it, and especially loved the speed at which it conducted its business. Over and out in just over three hours. No wasted motion. Although excited about SummerSlam the next day I was not so excited about the prospect of a 13 match card!

I needn’t have worried though. We returned to Barclays Center the next night, loaded up with some outstanding vegan tacos from Brooklyn Taqueria (cheaper than the pizza and worth a lot more), and settled in for the  six hour Summerslam. Surprisingly, the six hours whizzed by. A perfectly paced show that gave you space to breathe when you needed it and blasted you with action to wake you up at exactly the right time. It was a shame to see Rusev go from a main event title match last PPV to curtain-jerkin’ and losing in the pre-show before the arena was even half full, but the match was fun to watch. Likewise, while the Cruiserweight title match was awesome, I still don’t quite know what WWE is doing with the cruiserweight division. 205 Live is a great Network show – sometimes the best in-ring action of the week – but they no longer give the cruiserweights a legitimate presence on Raw, and they haven’t fought on PPV since Wrestlemania. Maybe they need their own events like Takeover on the Network soon to give them a more consistent next level to aspire to?

By the time the B-Team defended their tag titles against The Revival we were all psyched up for the main card. Bo and Curtis are just fun to watch, and an arena full of fans chanting “B-Team B-Team Go! Go! Go!” was a great pay-off for their years of hard work. (Just a shame it came at the expense of The Revival; likely the best team on the main roster yet criminally booked since their call-up). The familiar PPV FBI warning appeared on the big screen; then, now, forever; and we were off! Summerslam! 27 years since I first switched it on in that North Wales hotel room, I was now in the arena as Dean Ambrose’s music hit and the big show began. At Summerslam ’91 it was the Intercontinental Championship match between Bret Hart and Mr Perfect which stole the show. This year the Intercontinental Championship match opened the show, but Rollins and Ziggler damn near stole it anyway. An instant classic, which made the rematch worthwhile, and some great interactions between Ambrose and McIntyre. In fact, watching live, my wife and I couldn’t keep our eyes off Drew – he has a unique and very watchable presence at ringside and I hope WWE do great things with him in the future. The bar was set very high for the rest of the night.

I was surprised at how watchable the Bludgeon Brothers’ match was. I still hate the gimmick and can’t get behind the team, but New Day made the most of it. I was almost enjoying it and about to eat my words about the Bludgeons when they went and did a shitty D/Q ending and ruined the whole thing. A great shame. The next match, however, was a game changer. Perfectly booked to send a message to the crowd: Braun Strowman destroyed Kevin Owens in short time and it was clear to all of us that he was booked to look so strong because he would obviously be cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase in the main event later that night.

The triple-threat for the Smackdown Women’s Championship was also masterfully booked. A great match on its own merits, having Charlotte win over Becky Lynch made us all feel bad for Becky and hate Charlotte event though she technically did nothing wrong. By inserting herself into the match, and then winning, we all felt Becky had been cheated out of her moment, and roared our approval when she attacked her former friend. A beaten Charlotte, holding the title she just won and crying in shock was a great visual. A look which said what did I do? as we booed her, knowing exactly what we thought  she had done.

Continuing the theme of screwy Smackdown finishes, AJ Styles and Samoa Joe built from a very slow start to a dazzling crescendo, but whereas the New Day/Bludgeons disqualification came out of nowhere and made no sense, there wasn’t a single fan in the Barclays Center who didn’t entirely understand why AJ Styles launched himself at Samoa Joe and attacked him with anything he could get his hands on after Joe told Styles’ daughter he would be her “new daddy”. Great stuff. No one felt cheated and we all want to see the inevitable no D/Q rematch.

A brief but fun spot with Elias was a nice reset, and then it was onto another marquee match. The Miz versus Daniel Bryan was always going to be, for me personally, the real main event, as I had been waiting for the two to finally have this match since they were paired as Rookie and Superstar eight years ago on the old NXT. This match had everything, and had my jaw dropping multiple times. As a fan, wanting to make the show work for the company, I always want to cheer faces and boo heels, but this match was hard as, as much as I love Daniel Bryan, The Miz has earned my respect over his career and deserves the main event spotlight so much. I was proud of them both, and the dastardly finish with Maryse and the brass knuckles was great fun. (Though I found it odd that Maryse was out there but Bryan’s wife, Bri Bella, though at Summerslam, only seemed to care about the Ronda Rousey match later, not her husband’s!)

The one match I had no expectations for, and in fact had planned to use as a coffee and popcorn break in the proceedings, was Constable Corbin versus Finn Balor. But as we noticed a trapdoor being set up during a video pre-tape, we got an idea we might like this match after all. Sure enough, once Corbin was in the ring Balor’s music hit…but not his everyday music; this was his demon music. The Demon King returned at Brooklyn and destroyed Corbin in minutes to blow off their dull feud in the most exciting and logical way. Well played WWE!

After all the excitement there was a noticeable lull as Jeff Hardy and Shinsuke Nakamura began their United States Championship match. Luckily, Jeff did what he does best – killing himself for our entertainment – and missed a Swanton off the top and to the apron. The crash-and-burn woke us up and we cheered for Shinsuke’s win. Then got the pleasure of seeing Randy Orton come out, do nothing, and go away again, to, I guess, formally decide Jeff Hardy is no longer worth attacking or something? I don’t know. It was weird. But then Alexa Bliss and Ronda Rousey were coming out for the Raw Women’s Championship match and I no longer cared about Randy Orton’s motivations. I just wanted to see Ronda get Rowdy! Which she did. She dominated Bliss and made her tap quickly to win the belt in just her third PPV appearance. The crowd loved it. We all love Rousey and know that she deserves it even though she’s technically a rookie because she’s Ronda freakin’ Rousey! She celebrated in the ring with Natalya and The Bellas (clearly setting up a match down the line for the upcoming Evolution PPV) and despite the match’s shortness, it was so damn believable that the whole arena was on board. Both Bliss and Owens (and, grudgingly, Corbin) all deserve credit for doing stellar jobs tonight and putting over their opponents clean, promptly, and without ego, all for the greater good of the show.

The good feelings couldn’t last though. Roman Reigns was out next to a deafening chorus of boos. Lesnar’s entrance fared little better. Although we all liked sing-along-with-Heyman and joined him for his “reigning, defending, defending, defending, defending…” bit, no one wanted this to be our main event and we were happy to let WWE know it. But of course WWE already knew it, and before the match even started Braun Strowman’s music hit and he marched down the aisle with his Money in the Bank briefcase. Unlike other MITB holders, Braun said he wasn’t going to be a coward and cash in as a surprise. He was going to be upfront and told Lesnar and Reigns that whoever won, he would be cashing in tonight after the match!

 Immediately we stopped booing; our antipathy toward the match and it’s competitors neutralised by the prospect of Strowman ultimately ending the night as champ. The tease allowed us to focus on the match and enjoy it without sabotaging it, even as Roman was thrown out on top of the Monster in the Bank and Lesnar smashed him with an F5 to the floor before flinging the briefcase down the aisle. When Roman hit his spear and pinned Lesnar for three, the roof came off the place. Finally the age of Lesnar was over. The age of barely appearing on television and seldom defending the belt. The age where the universal championship’s value has plummeted because it is not a living, breathing regular feature of weekly television. And, yes, Roman is now the man, but any minute now Braun will end all that.

Any minute.

Any time now…

But Strowman remained knocked out on the floor and SummerSlam went off the air. The tease of a cash-in was exactly that: a tease. And touché WWE – it worked brilliantly. We all still hated Roman, but we were all glad to see him beat Lesnar and filed out of the Barclays Center happy, eager to see what Braun would do next tomorrow night at Raw. Maybe we’d see a cash-in then, and finally move forward from the Reigns/Lesnar treadmill?

But WWE doesn’t work like that. If the fans want to see something, then that almost guarantees it won’t happen when they want it. Raw began the following night with Reigns pandering to the Brooklyn crowd and randomly giving Finn Balor a title shot. Fine. It’s an opportunity for Finn all of us want him to have. But it was clearly done to make us cheer things Roman said rather than boo him. Furthermore, the return of Finn the man after the previous night’s visit from Finn the demon was a bit of a letdown. The fact he seemed to still be embroiled in a feud with the terrible Baron Corbin made it even worse, as last night’s demon squash should have been the blow off.

The booking here was very disappointing after the two weekend masterclasses. And it only got worse. Bobby Lashley fought Baron Corbin in a dull opener that was mostly headlocks and clumsy throws. The red hot crowd which had opened the show were bored and low energy by the end, and then we were given endless videos in the arena to kill the mood even more while the TV audience watched commercials. Compared to a pay-per-view or house show, a Raw TV taping makes it very clear to you that the show you are watching is not for you; it’s for the people at home. Lashley came out and literally had to stand pacing around in the dark as an advert for the WWE Network played on TV. In the arena we sat and watched a previously angry man, looking to kick Baron Corbin’s ass, start joking with the camera operator and grab a drink of water. Then his music came back up and we all pretended like he had been standing there, trash-talking Corbin the whole time!

Anyway, the Corbin match, like all Bobby Lashley matches since his return, sucked, and the videos after killed our energy. Despite the slight pop for Kurt Angle’s backstage segment with Paul Heyman telling him it would be a cold day in hell before Lesnar ever got his rematch, it took a lot for Sasha Banks, Bayley and Ember Moon to win us back against Riott Squad. They just about managed it, but it was clear we were getting restless. I was even finding myself yawning and feeling sleepy. This was not what I expected after the previous two days of awesome shows and as the match progressed I realised if I were at home I probably would have fast forwarded through these first two matches. Time seemed to drag, then Triple H’s music hit and we were suddenly awake again.

Unfortunately Trips was only there to promote the October Super Showdown from Australia and his “last time ever”match against Undertaker scheduled there. Although it was a great promo, it was so pointless as the recent Greatest Royal Rumble event from Saudi Arabia showed us that despite the hype these international big match PPVs will have little of import taking place. Like Cena versus Triple H before (or Undertaker versus Rusev) this is nothing more than a big payday for the wrestlers, and a promotion for the company. It’s not anything to do with the show or continuing storyline narratives. Nothing of any import happens on these shows. The promo was a waste of our lives no matter how well delivered it was.

Dean Ambrose versus Dolph Ziggler was next and this was a match worth seeing, with an astounding climax that had the house on their feet. We were now pumped up for Elias, and eager to see who had sabotaged his guitar the previous night. It couldn’t have been Bobby Lashley  – he’d already fought. Perhaps a call up from NXT, or a returning superstar? When it turned out to be Curt Hawkins who interpreted Elias it was disappointing. Though fun to believe this really could be Hawkins’ first win in over two hundred matches, none of us genuinely believed it so the match was an inevitable squash. Followed by a throwaway match between the Authors of Pain and Titus Worldwide which followed, the crowd was dead again. A lot of toilet breaks.

Luckily Ronda Rousey was out next to change the vibe, and it was cool to see the ring surrounded by all the female performers, including the Bellas (sowing the seeds for Evolution). Stephanie McMahon did a classic Stephanie promo, taking all the credit for Rousey’s success and trying to turn the roster on her, and Ronda did the best promo she’s done so far before snapping McMahon’s arm. It was a great segment, but was soon ruined by the follow up match and more bad booking. After a fun Summerslam pre-show match victorious over The Revival, all we wanted to do was continue the fun tonight and chant “B Team B Team Go! Go! Go!” a lot. But instead of letting Dallas and Axel team they gave us two singles matches against Dash and Dawson respectively. Worse – the B Team lost those matches too! Unable to chant for a team when no team was in the ring, the crowd resorted to beach balls and The Wave.

Please note: if you are a wrestling fan and you ruin someone’s match by doing The Wave, you are an asshole. No matter how badly booked the match was, sabotaging it further doesn’t help. It just makes life miserable for the performers out there doing their best. Sure – chant something nasty and relevant (i.e. “this is boring”, “this match sucks”, “change the channel”), but don’t shout irrelevant things for the sake of it (I.e. “CM Punk”) and don’t ever do the fucking Wave.

By the time the main event came around people were unfocused and largely disinterested, but soon we were back into things united by our mutual disdain for Roman Reigns and eager for Finn Balor to win or either of the competitors to “get these hands” from Braun Strowman who, again, had promised to cash in that night. Despite the distraction from one asshole fan who went on some sort of lunatic “suck it” streak and had to be forcibly ejected from the building for upsetting nearby children, the match was solid, and the finish thrilling. Everyone in the building thought Finn might actually win! When he didn’t, but Braun Strowman’s music hit, we were ready to see Roman fall. No-one was expecting The Shield’s music to hit and for Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins to come out all in black and triple powerbomb the Monster Among Men through a ringside table!

And this is why I fucking  love wrestling: I spent two hours and forty minutes of a three hour show largely bored and uninterested, yet still went home with a smile on my face and paying $35 for a commemorative SHIELD t-shirt because their return was that fun.

When the history books were written, it turned out Dibiase/Virgil and Big Boss Man/Mountie were not the best matches on the card of SummerSlam ’91. While people would talk about L.O.D versus the Nasty Boys and Bret Hart/Mr Perfect for decades afterwards, Dibiase/Virgil and Big Boss Man/Mountie are largely forgotten. But for me those two matches started a twenty seven year odyssey which still has yet to reach its conclusion. Maybe some kid last night in a hotel room in North Wales stole a few magic moments of SKY TV and missed the SHIELD reunion or the Ronda Rousey segment, but watched in awe as the Authors of Pain destroyed Titus Worldwide, or were inspired by the fighting spirit shown by the B-Team? Maybe they went to sleep last night wondering what happened in that main event they kept talking about? Dreaming about the creepy Undertaker they saw in the promo video for Australia? Imagined themselves stepping into the ring to face Ronda freakin’ Rousey…

The point is it is easy to be snarky and jaded about wrestling sometimes, especially after a three day immersion in the product at a time when two of the biggest events of the year precede just a regular Monday night TV taping. Not everything can be Summerslam or Takeover. But when you sit back and enjoy wrestling for what it is, let it captivate you, let it take your emotions on a joyride, then there’s truly nothing better. I had a great time in Brooklyn. And when I sit in my plane seat ready to fly home tonight, back amongst the normals, it will bring a tear to my eye to shout out the name “Adam Cole” into the cabin  and, for the first time in three days, be faced with nothing but disapproving silence in return instead of the friendly Pavlovian response of “BAY BAY!” that means I am amongst my people. Dan McKee

 

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